Beijing, 21 October 2012
For my fiftieth birthday my wife took me to revisit the mosaics at Ravenna. I had seen them for the first time during that first magic visit to Italy which I have written about in an earlier post, and many times since then I had emitted the desire to see them again. Our two children were with us, and an extraordinary thing happened to them when we entered the first church. It was as if they had entered a parallel world whose gravity was ten times that of Earth. They collapsed onto every horizontal surface and were as if glued to them, hardly able to drag themselves to the next church …
If I mention this it’s because it is exactly the way I feel every time I enter a room in a museum dedicated to Chinese calligraphy. Partly it’s the light, which is always subdued, no doubt to protect the fragile materials on which the texts have been written. But mostly it’s because the texts do not touch me in any way. They are merely squiggles on pieces of paper. As I stand there, willing myself to see something in the scrolls in front of me, a terrible lassitude overcomes me and my eyes start cutting left and right, searching desperately for a bench to sit on.
I have been with Chinese when they start to wax lyrical about the penmanship of the calligraphy on a scroll: the brush strokes, the ink, the I don’t-know-what-else. Apart from not understanding what is written, which I think makes it difficult to appreciate good penmanship, handwriting is an art form that touches me not a bit. I put it down to being the first generation – in the West, anyway – for whom writing became strictly utilitarian. My first years were spent struggling with ink pens, different colours of ink, different nibs, and cursive writing – all made more difficult by my being left-handed – but at the age of 12 came the liberation of the ballpoint pen, at the age of 17 the further liberation of the typewriter, and at the age of 25 the even greater liberation of electronic word processing. The squiggles on the sheet of paper are strictly functional to me (although I will admit to sometimes critically comparing different fonts in my word processing).
The divide between me and the Chinese on this is symbolized by the rack of writing brushes which I have purchased here in China. My rack has the brushes arranged so that they run from the biggest to the smallest, emphasizing the strict geometry of my composition. Even more important, I have kept the bristles in the point which they had when I bought them (bar a few which distressingly have fallen off the rack and had the point blunted). I find the shape of the brush, coming to a point in the bristles, quite beautiful to look at.
But for a Chinese this is meaningless. The brush is there to be used so it must have the bristles undone, flowing, possibly slightly bent from use. Mine is a sterile composition to them. They delight to keep their brushes untidily in a mug, bristle-side up, ready to be snatched up and used.
And yet … in different contexts, I have found Chinese writing quite beautiful to look at, just as a composition of abstract lines. For instance, I’m often attracted by the boards which hang over the entrance to temples with a phrase carved on them; the meaning of the phrase is of no matter to me, it’s just the composition I find striking. This is an example from South Korea.
Or I’ve sometimes seen just a character or two written on a wall which I feel “says” something to me as a composition, like in this example.
Or I have seen sculptures of characters; Chinese characters seem to lend themselves very well to being sculpted. Here are a couple of examples.
I have the same occasional attraction to Arabic, another script in which I am illiterate. Here’s a nice example I found surfing the web.
I suppose I am heir to a hundred years of abstract art, which tells me that it’s “alright” to just enjoy squiggles on a canvas as long as the overall composition has balance, a good colour scheme, and generally “works” for me. I mean, what’s a Jackson Pollock but an infinity of squiggles on a canvas? I show again here the Pollock I showed in an earlier post.
Wassily Kandinsky was also quite fond of squiggles.
Paul Klee was also into squiggles
As of course was Joan Miro, who must be the squiggler-in-chief.
And I haven’t even started on the sculpture …
So with that, I will go out and seek more Chinese writing compositions that I like … but I will keep away from those dimly-lit calligraphy rooms in museums. All those scrolls hanging there one after another are just too much for me.
Since writing this, I have come across the Chinese artist Qin Feng. In at least one period of his life he brought together calligraphy and abstract art. Here’s a couple of his paintings from that period:
Pix (except for my brush rack):
Calligraphy rooms in museums: http://www.sfgate.com/art/article/Out-of-Character-Asian-Art-Museum-3936470.php
brushes in a holder: http://www.lovellhall.com/product_list.php?cat=40&start=10
plaques at temples: http://tripwow.tripadvisor.com/slideshow-photo/chinese-characters-in-korean-temples-by-travelpod-member-akrn-seoul-south-korea.html?sid=12667092&fid=tp-7
Chinese characters on walls: http://www.flickr.com/photos/35464002@N08/6124930840/
Chinese character sculptures: http://www.shho.cuhk.edu.hk, http://www.flickr.com/photos/fotofish64/7292747450/sizes/m/in/photostream/
Arabic calligraphy: http://jchristinahuh.blogspot.com/2010/08/arabic-calligraphy.html
Pollock painting: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1982.147.27
Kandinsky paintings: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wassily_Kandinsky
Klee painting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Klee
Mirò painting: http://mercoledis.blogspot.com/2010/10/joan-miro-palazzo-blu-pisa.html
Qin Feng’s paintings: